Calling your cat by their name is a lesson in exasperation. No matter how many times you roll your cat’s tag across your tongue they’re unlikely to budge. Persephone doesn’t so much as shrug when we call her. She stares at us critically, as if calling her name at the wrong time disturbs the universe.
Does she even understand? Do cats understand their names? A cat in trouble will bolt towards a hidden vault when they hear their name yelled. Or, saunter into the kitchen when called for lunch.
Experience says cats do recognize their names. At least anyone I know with a cat would agree.
But science isn’t so sure. Even though cats recognize their owners (clearly), whether or not cats recognize their names isn’t a straightforward yes or no.
Probing Cat’s Understanding
Atsuko Saito and a team of behavioral scientist from the University of Tokyo visited the households of 112 domestic cats. The researchers accounted for all of the various variables. Homes with only two cats, four or more cats, single cats, cats that call the lab home.
She was testing whether or not cats pick out their name amid similarly sounding sounds.
Imagine a cat named “Luna.” Her owner utters phonetic words like “Tuna,” “Roomba,” “Soma,” “Goin-a.”
Once the cats were habituated to the similar sounds Saito and her team had the owner say the cat’s name. Researchers were hungry for the cats to show meaningful reactions: a wiggle of the ear, a flick of the tail, raising of the eyes, a twitch of the 32 muscles in the cat’s ears.
Reaction meant the cats understood their name—in some sense.
And the verdict is…
They did. Not only did the cats respond to their owner’s call but they showed meaningful enough responses when strangers uttered the cat’s name.
To make sure the cats weren’t honing in on the owner’s voice the Tokyo team also tested cats at cat cafés. These are exactly what they sound like. Places to sip cappuccino while a cat kneads knees for attention.
The researchers—not surprisingly—learned that cat cafés have too many cats by the barista’s feet. Call out to any particular cat and two or three come running, knowing all too well their chin will be scratched by a giggling girl.
So it seems that cats at cat cafés don’t become too attached to their name collar. Makes sense.
If a cat’s being given attention why associate the sound, “Oscar” with himself? At that point “Oscar” might as well mean, “Free petting for anyone who comes to me right now!” In the same way that parents confuse their children’s names, cat café patrons confuse the cat’s.
Not that the cats care. People spoil them regardless.
So, do cats learn their name?
The debate is not settled. What the Tokyo researchers conclude is that cats distinguish the sounds people make. Considering cats pinpoint the the precise location of a noise up to a yard away it’s no surprise.
The study concludes that communication between cats and people is possible. Anybody with a cat who plumps on their keyboard while typing will tell you that. Science is making progress but it hasn’t found ways to replicate what people living with cats already know.
Does that mean I will ever find the words to tell Miles to stop stealing my hair ties? Probably not. He does what he wants so long as he thinks he won’t be caught. (And he’s caught every time.) But just because there are no words that cross the boundaries between two species doesn’t mean there’s no language.
It’s too bad the experiment couldn’t test whether or not the cats cared to respond to their name. Or if they needed to bother.
The Name Debate Lives On
If cats know their name it feels like that means they understand—that they have a sense of self. That’s because we tend to hold other animals to our standards of intelligence.
And when we don’t see ourselves reflected in other animals we lower the bar for their abilities. A cat’s name becomes nothing other than a sound paired with a behavior. A cat hears their name and thinks they’re in trouble, or that they’re about to be rubbed with catnip, or something inbetween. The name is a ticket for something else, which is B.F. Skinner’s mechanical conditioning.
If a name is nothing more than a tool for something else for cats, then I don’t see why we can’t view our own names, as people, in the same light. But then that’s not how names work is it?
A name is never said in a vacuum. There’s pitch, length, rhythm, and all of the variables of music that apply to language. When the clerk at the DMV says my name it barely registers. But when my partner says my name I feel as if my being is recognized.
Do cats have the sense of self to have a similar experience? Is a cat’s name imbued with layers of meaning? Is a cat’s name the sum total of all the times the name has been said before? Living with cats says, “Yes,” but until a university lab publishes a confirmatory report it will only be my “Yes,” and maybe yours.
T.S. Eliot wrote that if you catch a cat in deep meditation he’s contemplating his secret name. A name research will never uncover. As if there’s a kingdom of cats hidden in a tree hollow where they speak their true language, and nobody ever yells their name for chewing the yarn. I’ll never find my cat’s secret name. But if I say “Miles,” he snaps right of his contemplation and waddles over to have his ears scratched.
So did we nail that like a name-tag on a lapel at a linguistics convention? Does your cat know their name? I’m curious to hear from you.
Maybe if you have many-many cats in your house you could share some insights on how they react to their different names. With only two names in our apartment it seems like it would be easier for our kitties to distinguish; especially since one of our cat’s names is one-syllable and the other is a whopping four.
“Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4
“The Naming of Cats,” T.S. Eliot, from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats